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Volleyball plays toughest non-conference schedule yet

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The volleyball team lines up for the anthem at the Marquette Invitational tournament.

The volleyball team lines up for the anthem at the Marquette Invitational tournament.

Photo by Andrew Himmelberg

Photo by Andrew Himmelberg

The volleyball team lines up for the anthem at the Marquette Invitational tournament.

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Every four years, volleyball head coach Ryan Theis takes his team to Hawaii; partially for the sand and surf, but mostly for the high-caliber volleyball. Each trip to Honolulu is guaranteed to pit Marquette against the University of Hawai’i, one of the top volleyball teams in the country.

Theis expected Hawai’i to be a tough enough test when he signed Marquette up for the Texaco Wa’hine Invitational. Then powerhouse programs UCLA and San Diego announced they were in the tournament several weeks later. All of a sudden, Marquette’s opening-weekend opponents were three of the country’s top 25 teams.

Marquette shocked the volleyball world by beating Hawai’i at home, then returned to script by losing to UCLA and San Diego. Theis doesn’t regret scheduling any of those teams. “(The schedule) got hard, but we like to schedule aggressively anyway.”

The weekend in Hawaii was the toughest of Marquette’s excruciating 12-match non-conference schedule. Seven of those 12 teams made the NCAA Tournament last season. One of them, in-state rival Wisconsin, was a No. 1 seed and hosted a regional round.

Such a schedule would be challenging even for an experienced team, which the Golden Eagles certainly are not. Players that accounted for 70 percent of Marquette’s kills last season are no longer on campus. Last season’s starting setter Sara Blasier graduated, as did starting libero Lauren Houg and middle blocker Meghan Niemann. Nine of the team’s 15 players are either freshmen or transfers.

Any concerns the new players aren’t up to the challenge are strictly external. Redshirt junior middle blocker Jenna Rosenthal thinks just the opposite; a tough opening schedule is the best way to get the team operating at peak efficiency.

“It’s so important to be able to play these high-level teams and get tested by fire,” Rosenthal said during preseason training camp. “It’s going to be crazy, but the girls are putting in such hard work … just coming through these challenges will make us that much stronger.”

Rosenthal can personally attest to the benefits of playing big-time opponents, especially on the road. One of her most striking collegiate memories happened as a freshman when she played in front of 5,500 adversarial fans in Marquette’s NCAA Tournament loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“I remember being really nervous because, oh my goodness, that’s a lot of people and it’s sold out,” Rosenthal said. “But when you step out on to the floor against a vibrant, vocal (road) crowd, it all sort of fades into the background. It just kind of fuels the energy of the entire game. During warmups, they’re yelling, they’re making noise and you can use that for yourself.”

There’s one road destination on Marquette’s schedule that is particularly inhospitable: University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Golden Eagles will travel to Madison Sept. 14 to battle a Wisconsin Badgers team that ranked No. 7 in the AVCA preseason Top 25. The Badgers are expected to move up in the rankings, as they defeated No. 11 North Carolina over the weekend. Marquette has never beaten Wisconsin on its home court.

That doesn’t deter players like sophomore setter Lauren Speckman from getting excited about the match. “They’re a very good team and they’re in the same area as us. I wouldn’t call it a direct rivalry or anything like that, but I think that there is something that we want to prove. We’re from Wisconsin too and we want to put our name on the map,” Speckman said.

All the early trials have one goal: getting back to the NCAA Tournament in December. Besides Creighton, there are no clear opportunities for nationally relevant wins on Marquette’s BIG EAST schedule. Clearing at least some of those non-conference hurdles appears to be a prerequisite for Marquette to make its seventh consecutive tournament appearance.

“We have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths from (our tournament loss) last December and we’d like to get back there and see how far we can get,” Theis said.

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